Sexuality in China: Polygyny and Its Discontents

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From The Poem of the Pillow (1788) by Kitagawa Utamaro. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

Following excerpts adapted from the book, Sexuality in China edited by Howard Chiang and published by University of Washington Press

Introduction: What was sex like in China, from imperial times through the post-Mao era? The answer depends, of course, on who was having sex, where they were located in time and place, and what kind of familial, social, and political structures they participated in. This collection offers a variety of perspectives by addressing diverse topics such as polygamy, pornography, free love, eugenics, sexology, crimes of passion, homosexuality, intersexuality, transsexuality, masculine anxiety, sex work, and HIV/AIDS. Following a loose chronological sequence, the chapters examine revealing historical moments in which human desire and power dynamics came into play. Collectively, the contributors undertake a necessary historiographic intervention by reconsidering Western categorizations and exploring Chinese understandings of sexuality and erotic orientation.

As early as the Bronze Age, a pattern that would go on to characterize Chinese society for millennia had already taken hold: polygyny at the top of the social pyramid, and competition for women, frequently leading to violence, at the bottom.

Many aspects of traditional Chinese society become comprehensible if one bears this fact in mind. Pure arithmetic makes it impossible for all men in a society to engage in polygyny, so one can use the number of women sexually available to a man as a rough but telling index of his social standing. For the overwhelming majority of males, this number would have been zero or one, but even those with one wife might have considered themselves fortunate. One of the most important milestones in a man’s life would have been attaining the requisite wealth and stability to support a wife; the thousands, if not millions, of men who could never afford a family became a permanent source of social unrest. It stands to reason that almost all healthy females were partnered at least once during their lifetimes, typically at an early age—either as wives (qi), if their families were relatively prosperous, or as concubines (qie), if their families needed the cash that would be offered for them. With few exceptions (to be discussed below), men were permitted to marry just one wife at a time—polygamy in this sense was normally forbidden—but they could acquire any number of concubines.

In the family hierarchy, the principal wife (diqi) ranked second only to her husband, whereas a concubine was always inferior to the wife, even if her relations with the husband were more intimate. This inferiority was reinforced in part by the wife’s particular privileges, and in part by the divergent manner in which wives and concubines entered the household. One reason why polygyny was accepted throughout premodern Chinese history is that marriage was not construed according to the Judeo-Christian understanding of a union of two souls before God. But that can be only part of the explanation, because the same reasoning would permit polyandry as well, yet polyandry was never institutionalized. Even Chinese literati who were attracted to Christian teachings were reluctant to give up their concubines. Because it contravened Christian doctrine, polygyny was regarded by missionaries as a prime impediment to Christianizing the Chinese people. Michele Ruggieri (known also as Luo Mingjian), a Jesuit priest who traveled to China in 1583, wrote: “If one woman cannot have two men, how can one man own two women?” In his reckoning, polygyny was at odds with the Sixth Commandment (or Seventh, according to the Septuagint and the Talmud): “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Xu Guangqi (1562–1633), a famous literatus, claimed: “Nothing about observing the Ten Commandments is difficult—except for not taking concubines.”

Polygyny was an elemental component of traditional Chinese culture, and it was enshrined in Chinese myth as well: the sage king Yao, we are told, gave not one, but both of his daughters to his fellow sage king Shun in marriage. Chinese Catholic converts such as Xu Guangqi restated a position with ancient roots: Polygyny was justified as a means of increasing fertility. By taking concubines, a male of sufficient means could ensure the continuity of his patriline—a demonstration of his filial piety (xiao). At the same time, however, these men risked discord at home, because resentment could grow between wives and concubines in the domestic realm. For the sake of maintaining family harmony, many Chinese wives accepted it as their duty to manage the household and bear many descendants.

However, not every woman shared these ideals or realized them in the same fashion. Some resorted to outbursts of jealousy in order to defend their marriage, status, and legacy. Conflicts between a son of the principal wife (dizi) and a son of a concubine (shuzi) show that, in polygynous households, descendants identified themselves with both their fathers and their birth mothers. Most fathers seem to have regarded their sons equally, whether their mothers were wives or concubines, because they were all his descendants by blood. (This accounts for the traditional Chinese practice of equally distributing a father’s property among his sons.) But the same did not necessarily hold for mothers, who were not always related to their husband’s children. There could be considerable strife within a polygynous household.

A man might take concubines for yet another reason: they could serve as tokens of his wealth and status. This tendency exacerbated the complementary predicaments of lower-class men and women. The commodification of the female body drove many women into polygynous households and also made it harder for poor men to establish monogamous households of their own. Men who had no opportunities for marriage were called “rootless rascals” (guanggun) in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). They were excluded from the regular family order because of the skewed sex ratio in the general population and the disproportionate number of women claimed by rich households. The skewed sex ratio was an enduring problem in China caused by a combination of factors: female infanticide, to be sure, but also shorter female lifespans attributable to unequal access to resources and, above all, the considerable dangers of childbirth. Polygyny in elite households further reduced the supply of marriageable women—a process already recognized in antiquity—resulting in a socially destabilizing surplus of males. Since the family structure formed the basis of traditional Chinese society, men without such ties were viewed as sexual predators and threats to the social order. Polygyny is thus not only a tale of patriarchy, but also a key to understanding profound social tensions in traditional China.

The Privileged Status of the Wife:

In traditional China, a woman’s social status was defined by the role that she played in her family. A wife was her husband’s mate and the hostess in the household. She shared her husband’s class, whether he was a peasant, merchant, or official; accordingly, the clothes she could wear and the etiquette she was expected to display depended on her husband’s background and achievements. The primary wife’s stature was cemented by the wedding ceremony and the funeral rites that would be held for her, as well as her legal rights. Only a bride formally taken as a wife could address the patriline’s ancestors as her husband’s partner. Not only was the bride herself accepted into the patriline, but her relatives were also integrated into her husband’s network as affines. A wife who ritually mourned her husband’s parents could never be divorced.

When a wife died, all of her husband’s recognized children, whether borne by her or not, assumed full mourning obligations for her, but her dowry was distributed only to her own sons and daughters. Despite the vicissitudes of rituals and laws over the centuries, the superiority of the wife over any concubine was ensured by such institutions. The wedding ceremony consisted of six basic procedures: making a proposal of marriage (nacai), requesting the bride’s name and date of birth (wenming), sending news of divination results and betrothal gifts (naji), sending wedding presents to the bride’s house (nazheng), requesting the date of the wedding (qingqi), and fetching in the bride in person (qinying). The details of each ritual could vary. A woman was recognized as a man’s wife only after the completion of all these procedures. Their importance is illustrated in the preface to a memorial poem about a faithful maiden, composed by Mao Qiling (1623–1713). Wang Ziyao, the eighteen-year-old heroine, was betrothed to a man from the Su family who died while still her fiancé. After observing the mourning period, she insisted on being married to her dead spouse in order to serve his parents. The Su family accordingly held a wedding ceremony for her. Maiden Wang was ritually ushered into her new home by her sister-in-law; she bowed with her fiancé’s portrait in the Su lineage hall and was formally introduced to her parents-in-law. The rituals on her wedding day served to confirm her status as Mr. Su’s wife.

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Debby Chih-Yen Huang

Dr. Debby Chih-Yen Huang earned her Ph.D. from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, U.S.A. Her academic expertise lies in Chinese Gender and Women's History as well as Medieval Chinese Political and Cultural History. Dr. Huang's research delves into the intricate dynamics of gender roles and societal structures in historical Chinese contexts, contributing valuable insights into the evolution of Chinese civilization through her scholarly work.

Paul R. Goldin

Paul R. Goldin is professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi (1999); The Culture of Sex in Ancient China (2002); After Confucius: Studies in Early Chinese Philosophy (2005); and Confucianism (2011). In addition, he has edited the revised edition of R.H. van Gulik’s classic study, Sexual Life in Ancient China (2003), and has coedited three other books on Chinese culture and political philosophy.

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